(Reuters) - A leading U.S. housing regulator on Monday announced changes to a government refinancing program that could help up to one million homeowners whose homes are worth less than their mortgage.
The Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said it was easing the terms of the two-year-old Home Affordable Refinance Program, which helps borrowers who have been making mortgage payments on time but have not been able to refinance as home values have dropped.
To help underwater borrowers, or those whose loans are worth more than their homes, FHFA said it will scrap a cap that prohibits any homeowners whose mortgage exceeds 125 percent of the property's value from participating in HARP, which is targeted at loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The plan, targeted at borrowers who hold loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, is the latest government effort to deal with a problem at the center of the economy's weak recovery -- a crippled housing market.
"Our goal in pursuing these changes is to create refinancing opportunities for these borrowers, while reducing risk for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and bringing a measure of stability to housing markets," FHFA's acting director, Edward DeMarco, said in a statement.
After meeting with DeMarco earlier this month, one lawmaker said the expanded program could help as many as 600,000 to one million borrowers. But that is only a fraction of the estimated 11 million homeowners who are underwater.
President Barack Obama will showcase the changes at a stop on Monday in Nevada, the first leg of a campaign-style swing through western states that may be crucial to his re-election in 2012.
To encourage banks to participate in the program, FHFA is revamping it to protect lenders from having to buy back HARP loans if underwriting problems are later found. Banks will only have to verify that borrowers have made at least six of their last mortgage payments and the new rules eliminate the need for appraisals in most cases.
FHFA said government-controlled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will waive certain fees for borrowers that refinance into loans with a shorter term, such as 15 years, aiming to spur homeowners to pay down the amount they owe at a faster rate.
HARP, one of the Obama administration's anti-foreclosure efforts, was unveiled in March 2009 and was expected to help as many as 5 million borrowers. So far, however, only about 894,000 borrowers have refinanced their loans through the program.